Men and women fight poverty together in Cambodia

Kheng Sokin (right) and Tep Srey Neang. Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

On a remote island in the Mekong, a chance meeting reveals Oxfam's legacy.

Near the bottom of Rogniev Island, in the middle of the Mekong River, there is a little sand bar with white sand that turns different shades of pink and red as the sun sets. Young men drift by on boats, casting their nets into the water in hopes of finding dinner. The air, and the water, is warm. After a hot day, it feels nice to stand in the river up to my ankles.

I’m here to talk with Tep Srey Neang, a young woman I met a few years ago at her home on the next island over. I’m writing about women’s leadership in the area, and Srey Neang has become a leader of a youth group that is promoting good management of the area’s fragile natural resources, particularly fish.

She brought with her a friend and neighbor, Kheng Sokin. When Srey Neang and I finish speaking, I turn to Sokin to chat for a few minutes before we leave to take them home. I’m anticipating a “nice-weather-we’re-having” sort of talk, but it turns out to be a completely different discussion about how Oxfam is changing the very fabric of her community and culture.

Learning about a legacy

I ask Sokin if she has lived in the area for a long time, and she says yes, all of her 40-something years. Then she tells me about her work as a veteran leader of her community, and her experience working with Oxfam.

Men cast nets on the Mekong in search of dinner. Fishing communities here are concerned about a diminishing fish population due to climate change and numerous hydroelectric dams on the Mekong and its tributaries. Women are more and more involved in discussions about environmental problems, and are leading in the development of solutions. Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

Sokin has been involved with all sorts of work by Oxfam: saving groups, training sessions for women on growing rice and raising water buffalo and enforcing fishing regulations, even building schools. For more than 20 years, she says, Oxfam has been in her community making a difference.

“Some other NGOs come, leave, come back again sometimes, but they are not like Oxfam,” Sokin says. “Oxfam really changed things. They helped us improve our community. It is a special organization that came to help us. They have really created a legacy in our community.”

Sokin says that more recently Oxfam has been helping a local organization called Northeast Rural Development (NRD) teach people in her community about ways men and women can work together more effectively in their community development projects. This training helps people question the counter-productive gender roles and attitudes that stand in the way of equality and a better future.

“Oxfam and NRD have helped women change a lot,” she says. “The training with NRD and Oxfam has helped them to be more confident, to speak up.” One way Sokin has done that is on radio programs that NRD has helped broadcast. Sokin and other women go on the air and talk about all sorts of concerns, and Sokin says men are listening. “The chief came to me and said he had listened to me on the radio, and said that what I described are real issues in the community.”

According to Sokin, attitudes in her town are changing. “I have noticed that local authorities are starting to promote women’s participation in community meetings. In the past, men would say, ‘oh there’s no need for you to come, just stay at home and be a good wife.’ But after NRD and Oxfam helped promote women’s voices on the radio, everyone here knows that development in our community cannot go well without women participating.”

Kheng Sokin: “Men used to look down on women, but now it is better.” Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

I’ve been working on and off in Cambodia since 2010, and this most recent trip included a lot of examples of ways men and women are re-examining gender roles and questioning their assumptions about what women can do as leaders. The stories people tell me here have a common theme: When communities empower women to lead, good things happen.

And my encounter with Sokin reminds me of one other important thing: Real change, especially in attitudes and behaviors, can take time. But if we are patient, and work with the right kinds of people and organizations, we can make a difference.

As 2019 winds down, I am remembering what Sokin told me that day on the Mekong about what’s changing in her village:

“Men used to look down on women, but now it is better. Our village assistant chief is a woman, and there are four women on the village community fishery committee. In most community activities like meetings, 50 percent are women. I hope someday soon a woman can be the village chief.”

If Oxfam can help this village create a future that includes women leaders like Sokin and Srey Neang, I think that’s a great legacy.

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